An amazing read! Charles C. Mann's book "1491" describes the possibility that native American contact with European traders may have depopulated the continent in advance of the arrival of colonists via spread of disease. Hence, when the colonists arrived, they found a relatively sparsely populated countryside. This context then gives rise our cultural imagination of the native population as 'primitives' living in a relatively uncultured and somewhat 'ecologically harmonious' and naive state.
Biological relativism is also debunked in Appendix C. European disease obliterated native American cultures, and the natural question arises--what diseases originated on this continent that had the same effect on Europeans? One oft-repeated answer: syphilis. The first recorded European outbreak of syphilis occurred around 1494-1495, brought back by mercenaries working for Charles VIII of France's armies in their conquest of Naples. As Charles' army fled a counter attack, mercenaries split off from the main retreating body, spreading syphilis as they went via their habit of rape and pillage. Within a year, European cities were banishing people who suffered from syphilis. It's not clear whether the disease came from American with Columbus' returning voyage, as suggested, with an equal number of arguments for and against. Hence any positive assertion of biological symmetry is sketchy at best. Mann makes the point that while smallpox toppled empires, syphilis did not, even if it did come from the Americas.
This book is interesting beyond the war-health perspective and will debunk many myths built up from years of TV, Hollywood movies, childhood fiction, and junior high text books.
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